My New Year's resolution was to strictly limit my sugar consumption. No M&Ms, no Jelly Bellies, no Gummi Bears, etc. I've pretty much kept to it, but I have to say that exhibits like Open Other Side by Robert Ruello at Inman Gallery make it hard.
Robert Ruello, Unknown Adventures in Unknown Places #11, 2013, acrylic on canvas
These canvases please the eye in the most basic way possible--with arrangements of super-saturated super-bright colors. They don't project any obvious emotion or meaning. Nor do they exist in a cultural space where they could be read as part of a particular movement or in a dialectic with some other theoretical approach. At first glance, they just are.
Robert Ruello, Unknown Adventures in Unknown Places #10, 2013, acrylic on canvas
That was my first impression when I looked at Robert Ruello's paintings. I'm not going to now tell you that I've discovered that they have hidden depths that I initially overlooked. But there is a common feature in all of these paintings that interests me. It's the grid of roughly round dots that more-or-less forms the ground of each painting. The dots are not uniform in size, shape or color. In #11, they are bright orange except for a section where they are light purple. And the orange dots seem to expand into a hairy shape in the middle of the canvas. In #10, they are dark blue, blue-grey and light blue in various places in the picture plane.
Robert Ruello, Unknown Adventures in Unknown Places #12, 2013, acrylic on canvas
In commercial printing, reproduction of images that have shades of grey or color is done through a process called "halftones." This is a way for one color ink (black for instance) to be printed in such a way that it appears to have various shades of grey. Photographic halftones started appearing in print in the 1880s. Typically, they create their grey tones with a grid of tiny dots of ink--smaller dots for lighter shades, larger dots for darker. Ideally, when you look at a halftoned image, your eye sees it as a continuous image, not as a grid of dots--similar to the phi phenomenon that occurs when we watch a movie that allows us to see it as a continuity of motion rather than a series of separate images.
If you look at a halftoned image with a magnifying glass or printer's loupe, you will see the dots. And depending on the absorbancy of paper they were printed on, they may appear quite ragged and irregular. (This is known as "dot gain.") Newsprint, because it is so absorbent, soaks up the ink of a halftone dot screen to create really rough dots. Because of this, the "screens" (how many lines of dots per inch) for newsprint halftones are not very dense. These dots hover right at the edge of being visible without a magnifying glass.
Artists in the 60s found this fascinating. Obviously Lichtenstein comes to mind, but his recreation of the dots used to create color in comics didn't acknowledge the imperfections of printing halftones onto the crappy, low-grade newsprint that all comics at the time were printed onto.
Warhol and Rauschenberg blew up newspaper images to gigantic sizes, which made the imperfections of the printing process highly visible. And since that time, designers and artists have been using that technique to create arresting images.
Robert Ruello, Unknown Adventures in Unknown Places #8, 2013, acrylic on canvas
I think this is what Ruello is doing with his dots. According to the information supplied by the gallery, the paintings start out in Photoshop, a powerful photo-editing application. I suspect that Ruello is scanning in halftoned images from a newspaper or other print publication and blowing them up thousands of times so that the image is completely lost--and all he sees are the halftone dots, the ink soaked into the paper in a particular pattern.
Robert Ruello, Unknown Adventures in Unknown Places #6, 2013, acrylic on canvas
If printed halftone images are Ruello's source, then each of these images is constructed from a fragment of another image. That's interesting to think about, but doesn't change the basic fact that these are eye candy. They're beautiful, rhythmic tasty pieces of eye candy. Seeing them gave me pleasure. I like art that challenges me, that expresses something in the artist, or embodies something in the world. I like art that is tentative, filled with doubt and false starts. I like art that makes me think more about the room that it's in or about how I need to go pick up my laundry. But I also like art that is pretty, that is visually exciting. These paintings are pure pleasure.
Robert Ruello, Unknown Adventures in Unknown Places #5, 2013, acrylic on canvas
When you allow that a piece like #5 is about the pleasure it gives, you can move on to admire its composition, the brown intrusion from the right, the transparent white box, the nail-polish-like blue dots, etc. These are well-designed paintings. Hal Foster wrote a book called Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes) where he calls out beautifully designed things (in the book he uses the examples of modern "starchitecture" and art nouveau objects) as being a way that capitalism trivializes art and hypnotizes people. It's a version of the old Frankfurt School argument against beauty (and against popular culture) because they are all just ways that capitalism psyches out the masses. But I personally reject that kind of Marxist puritanism. I selfishly want to live in a world where I am allowed to enjoy paintings like Robert Ruello's.
These paintings are on view at Inman Gallery through May 11.